Threats against Pakistani journalists: A reality check

In a blog entry on August 5, “Quantifying the threat to journalists in Pakistan,” CPJ’s Sheryl Mendez and I tried to measure what seems to be a rising number of threats aimed at journalists in Pakistan. We wrote about how the problem is rapidly growing as Pakistan’s security situation worsens and the civilian government appears unwilling or unable to act. It is, however, tough to quantify the problem when so many journalists fear disclosing the threats they receive. 

This week I was forwarded a message from Fayaz Zafar, a journalist in Swat, an area in northeastern Pakistan that was the scene of intense fighting in April 2009 between the Pakistan military and militant groups. Swat, a resort area, has been struggling to regain its stability since the fighting. I checked with Zafar, who works in English, Pashto, and Urdu, and he gave me permission to publicize his message.

Zafar says he was threatened by a military official, but, as Mendez and I noted in our blog, threats like this are common and can come from any of the powerful actors in Pakistan. Even when journalists go public with a threat, it is unlikely that any investigation will be started.

What did Zafar do to deserve being threatened? In his message, he said he had the temerity to write about the several security checkpoints in and around Swat that are alienating for tourists and hard on local residents. He also wrote about the poor state of the roads after last year’s military operations and the flooding that hit so much of Pakistan, including Swat. After the article was published, he said, a military official spoke against him at a public event; Zafar says he later received a phone threat made from a blocked number by a person he believed to be the official. CPJ’s calls and emails to the official went unanswered.

You might dismiss this as a simple dispute. But before you question the possibility of a threat being carried out, see Monday’s alert, “Journalist gunned down in Pakistan,” and Friday’s alert, “Journalist abducted in Pakistan tribal area,” about the disappearance of local journalist Rahmatullah Darpakhel in the nearby Federally Administered Tribal Areas. No one knows who has taken Darpakhel and, as far as CPJ can tell, no civilian or military authority is expending very much energy on solving the case. 

And a final point: Of the 871 journalists killed since 1992, CPJ data show that just 95 percent of them were local journalists. Which is why Fayaz Zafar and his family have every right to be concerned.